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After the Vote

After the Vote: Plastic Bag Battle Over, More Fights on the Horizon

On Tuesday California said no to the plastics lobby’s wish list. Proposition 67 passed with 52 percent affirming the law banning the bags. Proposition 65 failed, with 51 percent rejecting the redirection of bag fees. It was precisely the result environmental groups, grocers and unions had pushed for.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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When California legislators banned single-use plastic bags in the summer of 2014, the national plastics lobby, a coalition of out-of-state interests united under the banner of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, fought back at the ballot box. In addition to gathering signatures to call a referendum on the bag ban, Proposition 67, the plastics manufacturers managed to add Proposition 65, an initiative to redirect fees grocers collect for disposable carryout bags to a state wildlife fund.

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But on Tuesday California said no to the plastics lobby’s wish list. Proposition 67 passed with 52 percent affirming the law banning the bags. Proposition 65 also failed, with 51 percent rejecting the redirection of bag fees. It was precisely the result environmental groups, grocers and unions had pushed for.

It was also a rebuke to the bag alliance which, to many people, had appeared to be sowing confusion with the dueling propositions. An October survey conducted by Capitol Weekly, for instance, showed that 68 percent of poll respondents supporting Prop. 65 believed they were voting against the interests of the plastics industry.

“It was intentionally confusing,” says Mark Gold, Associate Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. But in the end, Gold says, “voters saw through what the polluters had put on the ballot. It made me feel pretty good that California voters got it.”

The Proposition 65 and 67 results also offered evidence of Californians’ willingness to sort through ballot complexity in a way civic leaders sometimes fear they won’t. “A lot of people thought there would be voter fatigue about such a long ballot with so much on it,” Gold says. “They expected people to just vote no.” Instead, voters by large margins funded education, acted on behalf of the environment and allocated money for infrastructure—“all pretty positive developments for California.”

Still, the $6 million that the plastics companies invested in their ballot campaign, along with several more millions spent on lobbying the legislature during previous sessions, has not gone to waste. Both the bag alliance and the American Chemistry Council that preceded it demonstrated to other industries how to stall unfriendly legislation in progressive California. And, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the industry made $15 million in profit while the bag ban was on hold.

“It’s always good to say you can’t buy an election in California if you’re a polluter from South Carolina,” Gold says. “But this battle has taken a decade, and there’s been an opportunity cost.” Were it not for the protracted fight over plastic bags, Gold says, lawmakers might have restricted other kinds of waste, such as foam packaging.

“If you’ve ever done a beach cleanup, you know that plastics bags are only one part of the problem,” says Gold, who headed up the environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay from 1998 to 2012. “The question now is whether [lawmakers] have the stomach to move on.”

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